As a congregational rabbi, I am called upon to respond when people face serious challenges in their lives. Many times, the challenge occurs when someone is diagnosed with a serious medical condition.
A colleague, Rabbi Hirshel Jaffe, was renown years ago for his prowess as the “running rabbi.” He regularly competed in marathons. Then, thirty years ago, he faced his own personal catastrophe when he was stricken with a heart attack. Thankfully, he survived and went on to co-author a wonderful book entitled Why Me? Why Anyone?
Not long ago, Rabbi Jaffe wrote a blog that distilled his philosophy of how to cope with a serious illness. His writing is full of wisdom. It is a privilege to share his blog with you, dear reader. May it offer you, your family and friends, comfort and hope:
Hanging on to Hope: Facing Illness and Adversity
by Rabbi Hirshel Jaffe
In 1978, I bounded across the finish line of the New York City Marathon wearing a T-shirt proclaiming me “The Running Rabbi.” I was just as tireless in my calling as a rabbi in Newburgh, New York. I had marched for civil rights in the 60’s, rallied to free Soviet Jews, and in 1980 visited the hostages held in Iran. I’d never been sick in my life. I felt indestructible. That was then.
Just six years later my illusion was shattered as I lay dying of leukemia. By a miracle of timing doctors saved my life with an experimental drug and I returned to my congregation to fulfill the new task God gave me - counseling those who face adversity. For over 20 years as a rabbi, I had helped others through crisis. I was supposed to have all the answers. Yet when I got sick, I discovered I didn't have them. I felt confused, frightened, and desperate. Who would comfort me?
My experience with serious illness has made me want to share with you what I learned about facing illness, or for that matter any adversity. Here are some of my thoughts and suggestions which I hope will help you or your loved ones if, God forbid, you have to face a threatening crisis.
I really believe my fighting spirit meant the difference between life and death for me. My nurses told me that once when I was delirious, I pounded on the bed rails yelling, “Come on, Hirshel!” I was cheering myself on like my wife and daughters cheered for me when I ran the marathon.
Writing a book about my illness with my friends, the Rudins, gave me something to live for. I would wearily clutch the manuscript in my hospital bed and show it to my nurses. It took a lot out of me to write even a few words, but I know that completing Why Me? Why Anyone? helped keep me alive.
Life Projects. Keep up interest in your life projects. If you are able to return to work in some capacity, do it. Even if you have just five good minutes a day, use that time and build on it. If physical limitations prevent you from doing tasks in your usual way, try to devise new ways to do them. Reorganize, delegate, ration your energy sensibly.
Doing, learning, re-learning will help you to feel alive and regain self-esteem. When my physicians noticed how depressed I was in the hospital, they said, “Be a rabbi — go and counsel other patients.” That made me feel important again. My friends fighting cancer and other diseases tell me the same thing: Helping others cope is the one good thing they can do, the one good thing they feel qualified to do, and the one good thing they find real fulfillment in doing.
Keep your sense of humor. Learn to laugh at yourself and enjoy life. One morning when the doctors made their rounds, I said to them, “I think these antibiotics are doing something to me! Something strange is happening to my body!” They burst into laughter. I was wearing a Frankenstein mask!
Be thankful for each day and greet it joyously. Since my brush with death, every moment is special to me. Live life to the fullest, even if it might be for just a short period of time. How long you live is not as important as what you do with your time, or what you are in that time.
Today I feel I know what’s really important in my life. I’m learning to say “no” to people — I don’t want to fritter away my life letting other people tell me how to live. For me, being with the ones I love is the most important thing. And I make a point of telling these people often how I feel about them “while I still have the chance.
By facing death I learned how to live. My illness taught me the real meaning of being a rabbi. It’s not who can be the best scholar; it’s who can touch people, who can comfort them. I used to be too “hyper,” the running rabbi, breezing by people. Now I take time to talk and listen more deeply. I know what it’s like to hurt. I understand people’s fears, and can now begin to reassure them out of my own struggle and confusion and fear. “God wants heart” is a saying in the Talmud that I now truly understand.
Will I run another marathon? Sure, I want to, but it doesn’t matter to me how long or how fast I go. Now I’m running the true race — trying to be a good husband and father, and a companion for those who walk the path of serious illness.
I hope that as you walk this path , whether illness or crisis or depression ,that you let the “Power” within you that you surely possess carry you over the rough spots, and stay with you, too. And I hope your struggle with adversity, or your journey to the edge of life, helps you learn secrets of precious love, secrets of precious peace.
This blog originally appeared on Adventures of a Rabbi.